If before the pandemic Netflix, and streaming in general, was already an indispensable force in the cinematic landscape, the last couple of years have only accelerated the inevitable; there is now a clear (and seemingly irreversible) divide between movies that are made for theater and those that can only find life in streaming services.
For better or worse, adult-oriented filmmaking has migrated almost exclusively to these new financing and distribution outlets and Netflix, despite facing ever more heavy competition, still reins supreme in the realm of original films. 2021 in particular was a great year for them, with their usual fare of awards competitors (most of which are actually very good) and some excellent obscure genre offerings. These are the 10 best of the crop.
10. Below Zero
The double-edged sword of Netflix’s distribution tactics is that on one hand, yes, they do technically give movies the opportunity to be seen by millions of people who would otherwise never have easy access to them. But, on the other hand, the streaming platform does close to nothing to actually get people to see such movies, thanks to their zero marketing “strategy” (which, curiously enough, they reserve only for already obscure titles and not their awards heavy-hitters or blockbuster star-vehicles).
That’s how a terrific action thriller like “Below Zero”, which could easily have become a widespread hit, can go virtually unnoticed not only by audiences but even critics. It being a non-english language film already gives it a barrier to overcome, but one of Netflix’s greatest gifts is that it can boost non-american titles into international success (see: “Squid Game”). And there’s no reason that couldn’t have happened to this movie, a sort of Spanish “Assault On Precinct 13” set in an even more inhospitable environment than Carpenter’s classic, as a prisoner transfer is attacked and becomes trapped in the middle of a snowstorm, leaving the officer in charge to fight both the criminals and the natural elements.
“Below Zero” is everything you could want out of such a thriller: taut, gory, violent and admirably committed to its own simplicity, mining all the pulp it possibly can from its premise.
Another excellent little thriller that got completely buried by Netflix’s all-powerful and completely elusive algorithm (and, perhaps not coincidentally, also a non-english language title), Alexandre Aja’s “Oxygen” is an instant classic of the “single-location” suspense film, designed to give claustrophobia’s excruciating agony for years to come – and delightful thrills for the less squeamish viewer.
The set-up is as simple and effective as it gets: a woman (played by Mélanie Laurent) wakes up in a cryogenic chamber with no memory of whom she is, or how she got there. To make matters worse, her air supply is fast running out and she needs to find out exactly what’s going on if she has any hope of staying alive.
What follows is the kind of tight, no frills claustrophobic thriller that Aja, between this and “Crawl”, has been becoming an expert in. The key difference here is that, unlike that delicious killer croc movie, the director has extremely limited space in which to stage the action, which aids the tension by itself, but could also become dull if not handled well. Thankfully, Laurent is terrific, making her character’s struggle intense and believable even as the plot spins into wildly silly directions. It’s up to the viewer to embrace such twists or not, but those willing to accept them will certainly have a great time.
8. tick tick…BOOM!
A perfect example of what the Netflix machine can do for movies it deems worthy of promotion, Lin Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut “tick tick…BOOM!” may not seem, initially, as a particularly niche film, but it absolutely is, only it’s tailor made for a demographic not often catered to in cinema: theater kids.
It’s a group that can be as rabid about its history and closed off culture as any comic book fan – and Miranda, being one of them, has made a movie essentially to celebrate musical theater and those who are passionate about it, peppering cameos from Broadway actors the way superhero films thrown in fan favorite characters, and treating a Stephen Sondheim appearance as the ultimate easter egg for those in the know.
The whole approach could easily become annoying, but Miranda’s lovingly sincere affection not only for his central subject Jonathan Larson (played by an admirably committed Andrew Garfield), but also for the broader world that defined his obsession is moving; and his craft is surprisingly sturdy for a first-time director, with particularly excellent use of cross-cutting for the best musical sequences.
7. The Hand Of God
One of the unambiguously great things about Netflix is the fact that they give interesting directors a large budget to realize some passion projects they’d never be able to make otherwise, at least not at the scale that the streaming platform allows.
It’s how we got masterpieces like “The Irishman” and “Roma”, movies that are both contemplative and bombastic, miraculously marrying their deliberate rhythms and complex questions with a huge scope, visually and thematically. Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand Of God” is not exactly on the same level as these two seismic works of art, but it presents many of the same qualities that made those movies so essential; a film that skillfully treads the line between the intimate and the universal without ever losing sight of either.
“The Hand Of God” is a sort of culmination of every thread from Sorrentino’s career, featuring both his acerbic sense of humor and heartfelt emotion; not to mention a new aesthetic high from one of the world’s most visually sophisticated directors.
6. The Harder They Fall
In the same way Netflix grants generous budgets to great masters of old, they also admirably take chances on new filmmakers to make original projects, something ever more rare in the current studio system, which has never been more financially lucrative nor more creatively bankrupt.
That dichotomy is the point of origin for one of the fiercest debates in film circles of the last few years: is Netflix’s dominance something to be celebrated, since they provide opportunities for underrepresented voices, or is their power just another depressing sign of the times, proof that mainstream adult filmmaking is all but dead except as another piece of “content” for a juggernaut, with no chance in cinemas (considering the streamer’s absolute unwillingness to play their movies in theaters)?
It’s possible that both assertions are simultaneously true, but movies like “The Harder They Fall” give hope that the current state of American cinema may not be as grim as some think. Jeymes Samuel’s debut is at once a throwback and a completely new vision, a spaghetti western that lovingly pays homage to the classics while re-contextualizing those scenarios and characters for genre revisionism and historical accuracy. And, no less important, it’s just one hell of a fun movie: violent, stylized and with one of the years greatest soundtracks.